Democracy in India – 9: Who Speaks for India?

Every five years there is an election in India and we interpret the results to conclude what we think the majority of Indians want. But what happens between two elections? How do we know where the majority of Indians stand on the various issues that crop up between elections?

Let us take an issue like the relationship of India with any of its neighboring countries that might become salient because of some random incident. What determines the policy response of the Indian government to such an incident?

If we are not Indian and are outside India, all we have to go by is the English language media. How representative is this of the voice of the majority of Indians who are rural?

We know that newspapers in India sell well below the cost of production and are heavily subsidized by revenues from corporate advertisements. It is natural to assume that newspapers would tend to project the perspectives of corporate India. And would it be reasonable to suggest that the views of corporate India are unlikely to be representative of the views of the majority of rural Indians?

Would it be also fair to assume that the urban upper and middle class individuals who comprise the majority of professionals putting together the content of the English language media are not able to reflect the aspirations of the rural majority? This is very much a South Asian phenomenon where the gap between urban and rural worldviews can be very wide. In fact, there may be less distance between urban South Asian and urban North American views on many issues of contemporary relevance.

Indians and those living inside India have the advantage of access to the local language media. One would assume that this would reflect local opinion somewhat more accurately than what one might term the ‘metropolitan’ media. But corporations also control many local language newspapers, at least those operated by major chains. One can assume that Indians in India are more in tune with the views of the majority of Indians but one is not sure of the degree of this closeness.

From the perspective of representative governance, what is of interest is to understand how the views, opinions and preferences of the majority of Indians get reflected in the decisions that are made by the government of India on their behalf.

Is there a process by which such preferences are filtered up that those outside India do not understand? Or is the voice that is reflected in such decisions the one that is presented in the English language media? And, if so, is that an issue that needs some debate and discussion?

One example that comes to mind is the ‘Shining India’ campaign of the BJP in the 2004 elections. It seems that this was very much a reflection of the aspirations of the ‘metropolitan’ elite and must have been both applauded and promoted by the English language media. Were there any projections of the aspirations of rural or urban poor voices? And, if so, why did they not carry more weight in the electoral agendas of the various parties?

Of course, policies related to trade, industry, foreign relations, etc., can present even greater difficulties in being truly representative of all the citizens of India.

Could it be the case that the urban metropolitan elites have a paternalistic attitude towards the rural majority feeling that they know best what needs to be done (or not done) on behalf of the majority? If so, what does it imply for the working of representative governance?

We are fortunate to have received interesting feedback on the previous post in this series covering the election results. Tasveer Ghar has compiled a pictorial essay that goes beyond both the English and local language media and presents posters put up by local community groups. This provides a different window on one aspect of electoral politics.


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